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Church retreat on gays

Bishops drop protest after minsters say they will force schools to stress the importance of marriage. Harvey McGavin reports

CHURCH leaders this week shied away from confrontation with the Government over Section 28, which bans councils from promoting homosexuality in schools.

They signalled willingness to see this section of the Local Government Act repealed, after ministers issued a draft of new guidance to schools stressing the importance of marriage and protecting children from "inappropriate materials".

Ministers plan to put the guidance in an amendment to the Learning and Skills Bill to be debated in the Lords next week, which would make schools legally obliged to follow it.

The five-point amendment states that children should:

learn about marriage and its importance in family life;

learn the significance of marriage and stable relationships as a key building block of society;

learn to respect themselves and others;

be given accurate information enabling them to understand difference and prevent and remove prejudice; and

be protected from inappropriate teaching and materials.

The guidance goes out to consultation over the next five weeks.

Civil servants have been working for weeks on the precise wording of the guidance, to make it relevant and sensitive to pupils' needs, without directly promoting a particular sexual orientation.

It says pupis should learn the benefits of delaying sexual activity and that schools have a part to play in reducing teenage pregnancy. Parents should be consulted on the content of sex education lessons and will retain the right to withdraw children.

Canon John Hall, general secretary of the Church of England board of education, said that as the guidance would be statutory, it would apply to governing bodies and headteachers as well as councils.

He was confident that "given this amendment, Section 28 could be repealed".

Simon Blake, director of the Sex Education Forum, a coalition of 50 groups representing parents, children and the education service, said that the phrase "inappropriate teaching", like the word "promotion" in Section 28, would create a climate of uncertainty.

"It will worry and confuse and make teachers anxious. It is 'inappropriate' for children not to get the information they need and not to get the opportunity to explore their attitudes and values.

"We should listen to young people. What they say is that the sex education they receive is too little, too late and too biological."

Chief inspector of schools Chris Woodhead, who controversally said he had seen no evidence that Section 28 hindered teachers' abilities to deal with homophobic bullying, admitted to the Education Select Committee this week that he had never asked a teacher about the impact of the law.

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